Donald Trump’s America Can’t Fight Xi Jinping’s China

China hawks pinned too many hopes on a deeply flawed administration.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a welcoming ceremony in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a welcoming ceremony in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images

On Friday morning, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters, “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine,” as he threatened to veto the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate. This extraordinary betrayal of Hong Kongers—in the service of a supposed trade deal that’s already collapsing—was par for the course with Trump, a man deeply ill-prepared for a serious contest with China.

In his first couple of years in office, several China experts I have great respect for told me some variant of “I hate Trump, but I have to respect what he’s done on China.” There was a certain Nixonian quality to it—only Trump could take us away from the Great Wall. But this view was a mistake. A serious shift in U.S. position was inevitable, as China slips further into ethnonationalist dictatorship under Xi Jinping, continues its aggression in the South China Sea, and hardens its own attitudes toward the rest of the world. Trump’s trade war helped that shift come, perhaps, a year earlier than it might have otherwise—and that the new hawkishness has arrived under his administration brings serious problems.

As an individual, Trump has always been an unreliable peg for China hawks to hang their hopes on. He has absolutely zero interest in human rights and free speech. His own instincts are authoritarian, as he has repeatedly shown through his support for torture, pardons of war criminals, and attacks on the press. He is barely even able to pretend that he cares; he goes after China out of protectionist instincts, not political principle.

Trump’s worldview is also corrupt to the point of childishness. He cannot imagine deals made on equal terms; his is a world in which the dogs eat the dogs and every game is zero-sum. That makes him a terrible leader for the U.S. alliances in Asia, which depend on complicated mutual relationships. His pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a straightforward win for China. While the alliance with Japan is just about surviving Trumpian whim, South Korea is growing increasingly alarmed after the whining demands for a quintupling of South Korean costs in the alliance. It echoes Beijing’s own view of the world, in which international rules are a joke by the powerful and the strong will always eat up the weak.

Trump’s personalist view of politics is also very useful to Beijing. He is obsessed with how other leaders treat him—the more fawning the better. That makes him more comfortable dealing with autocrats like Xi than with other democracies. Perhaps because of his own swinging between insults and compliments, this can—as in his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—survive the other side flinging epithets at him, if they say nice things later. As I’ve written before, China has a very well-established playbook for dealing with egotistical Western businessmen—not least because the Chinese system itself produces this kind of obsequiousness toward power. (The novelist Wang Shuo parodies this brilliantly in Please Don’t Call Me Human, with a five-paragraph encomium toward an unimpressed official.) On all sides, this is also deeply corrupting: In the United States, Peter Navarro, once an ardent opponent of Chinese oppression, defended Trump’s efforts to persuade the Chinese security state to attack his political enemies.

Even if Trump were himself smart and determined, however, his administration’s policies would render it fundamentally inept at waging this struggle. The defining quality of Trumpian policy has been racism—toward black Americans, toward Hispanics and Muslims, and—although downplayed recently—toward Asians. China’s threat, conceived of in true “yellow peril” terms, preoccupied the president’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon—causing him to zoom in on false claims about Asian immigration. (Bannon has close ties to the extremely unreliable exiled businessman Guo Wengui.) Stephen Miller, one of the administration’s few long-term survivors, is also obsessed with the issue; he pushed for all Chinese students to be denied visas to the United States.

Trumpian racism—which will outlive Trump himself—seriously poisons the American ability to contest a new Cold War. The old Soviet whataboutist slogan “And you are lynching Negroes” was self-serving, hypocritical—and struck right to the bone. The United States had little standing to contest the lack of democracy or independence in the Soviet republic of Georgia when Jim Crow ruled the American state of Georgia. That was a problem recognized by American statesmen and skillfully used by civil rights leaders at home. China can’t appeal to the same socialist idealism that the Soviet Union did, but it has already used anti-Muslim measures in the United States to defend its own atrocities in Xinjiang. Han supremacism cannot be fought without fighting white supremacism, from voter suppression to America’s own prison-industrial complex.

Much of the struggle between the West and China will also depend on the global Chinese diaspora. China sees individuals of Chinese descent as naturally belonging to the People’s Republic and exerts huge effort in its attempts to dominate and manipulate the diaspora—including terrorizing those who do not comply and throttling the freedom of speech of Chinese students and others abroad.

The Chinese Communist Party fears the diaspora, too, because of its historical association with revolutionaries and radicals; with civil society crushed in the mainland, any change will have to come from elsewhere. Defending Chinese Americans, in particular, from these assaults is vitally necessary. An administration that sees immigrants as un-American cannot do this. Talent, too, must be tempted into the United States, not rejected from it. The defining experience of most Chinese citizens’ interaction with the American state is the visa process. An arbitrary, delayed, and racially biased process leaves a lingering bitterness; a radically generous one helps the United States not only attract talent but builds its reputation among ordinary Chinese citizens.

In this struggle, too, America’s allies will be Asian. South Korea and Japan are the bedrock of democratic alliances in the region, but plenty of others have good reason to fear or distrust China, such as the Philippines, which sees its territory under threat even as its own autocrat brown-noses Xi, and Vietnam, where a nominally shared ideology doesn’t negate a history of fighting Chinese imperialism. Most important of all is Taiwan, a thriving democracy that shares a cultural and political heritage with China—and the protesters of Hong Kong, freshly betrayed by Trump’s words Friday.

Fortunately, unlike China, U.S. policy does not depend on one man’s will. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have become increasingly outspoken on China—as have experts on China from across the political and professional spectrum. There is a cynical side to this, to be sure—a belief that the issue can make careers and a desire on the part of Washington institutions to find a consensus. Yet Xinjiang and Hong Kong have also genuinely horrified many policymakers and swept away illusions about China’s supposed liberalization. Trumpism is poisoning the struggle against Chinese autocracy, but Trump cannot override the overwhelming vote in the Senate—unless Republican lawmakers crumble in the face of their own homegrown autocrat.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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